New Appreciation

Words by Mother Muse Neri James, Photographed by Ruby Olivia

My parents and I come from Guyana, South America. We migrated to the United States in 1987, when I was just one year old. Brooklyn, NY became our home. As my father currently nears the end of his life, he reminisces often. He tells me the version of old stories that my mother would never dare to share. Perhaps it relives bad feelings for her. My mother struggled to conceive and had been told by the best infertility doctor in the country, at the time, that there was no hope after unsuccessful trials and attempts. My father recalled how much my distraught mother cried and cried. It can be said that somewhat of a miracle occurred. My mother unknowingly conceived me in her mid-thirties.

She had no idea.

She had become sick enough to visit a doctor who mistakenly recommended surgery as I was thought to be something other than a fetus. Thankfully, another doctor confirmed with my parents that my mother was indeed expecting. My father named me Nerissa, a name he loved from one of Shakespeare’s plays. Not only did my mother birth me, but she also magnificently birthed my younger brother 15 months later in Brooklyn.

Considering our beginnings, as irony would have it, my mother and I had a strained relationship for a big part of my life. We had very humble beginnings as she and my father acclimated to a new life. They worked extremely hard to provide for us. We grew up in a rough area of Brooklyn and were sheltered children. My mother was the stricter parent, which was natural of her culture. She had a serious demeanour, and I do not recall her smiling or laughing too much. For the most part, she was always busy—working, cooking, and chores.

The most relaxed I recall seeing my mother was when she found time to be creative. She inspired my fascination with art from a young age. I would watch as she decorated the prettiest cakes. We did all kinds of crafts together—made baskets, jewellery, doll furniture, sewed pillows, oil paintings, and more. Art was an outlet for her, where she appeared the most open and calmest. She still holds on to some of my childhood paintings to this day.

In contrast, she emphasized the importance of book smarts and found time to give us literacy lessons—reading, spelling, parts of speech, etc. She was raised in a country heavily influenced by the British due to colonization; thus, she was adamant about us speaking “properly”. She always corrected the informal language we picked up at school. She also monitored the television programs we watched, and she was very much involved in our school affairs. I did not like her coming to my school. There was shame associated with it. My peers would make fun of her accent. Middle school was where the rough patch began for us. This phase of childhood felt especially lonely. I was faced with a world and a generation of peers that was completely different from my mother’s time. I struggled to figure out how to navigate. Realistically, it was a world that she could not have prepared me for. Children were mean, and I got into many unwanted fights with peers as I defended myself.

My mother was very unhappy with my troubles at school. Unfortunately, her culture did not allow for much healthy dialogue between a parent and child. She simply could not relate to my experiences, nor did she have an open mind to try. We argued a lot with many hurtful words exchanged. I felt overwhelmingly misunderstood and angry. These feelings extended into early adulthood for me, especially when she denied my artistic career path. It was her wish for me to do something more serious and stable. Embarking on a path that made me happy was not a realistic enough concept for her. I went to college, completed my CPA, and became a public accountant. It was probably the most distant from myself I had ever been. Two and a half years later, I transitioned to unemployment and exploring the medium of arts that made me happy. This was very hurtful and hard for my mother. I think we spent a lot of time wishing each other were different.

My heart softened towards my mother as I began experiencing adulthood’s responsibilities, but especially once I had children of my own. My daughter, Jett (7), and my son, Jace (6), constantly inspire me to be the best version of myself, including a healthier relationship with my mother. Motherhood has completely changed my perspective of things. It has allowed me to view my own mother with more grace. I see all the beautiful parts of her. She may have been serious, but it was connected to completely selfless actions. Life is hard when there are all types of work, chores, and financial responsibilities to juggle, especially those involving little humans. Everything she did was for us.

As I provide for my children now, I wish I spent less time feeling ashamed of my humble beginnings and appreciated both my mother and father’s efforts more. My children have taught me that parents do not have all the answers to life. They have taught me that motherhood involves winging it with all good intentions while praying for a great outcome.

As a child, you expect your parents to know so much, be so wise, and do everything right. I have come to understand that mothers are flawed, and that is perfectly ok. Mothers are actual humans who make mistakes sometimes. We are not always superheroes, and while we love deeply, we may not always know the best ways to express this love. We try our best to control our children’s narratives because we care for their well-being so deeply. While my mother and I did not always see eye-to-eye, she fulfilled her duties making choices for me that she thought was best, and she has always meant well.

I hope to recycle my mother’s and my experiences into something positive for my children with conscious efforts. I want Jett and Jace always to feel loved even when we disagree. I want to be more open with them and validate their feelings while teaching them how to navigate emotions healthily. I hope to be more trusting of their life decisions and inspire them to pursue the very things that make them happy. I hope they forgive me for the mistakes I am bound to make. I hope that one day they can look back and think that I was indeed a good mother.

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